Dmitri Shostakovich, born on September 25, 1905, started taking piano lessons from his mother at the age of nine after he showed interest in a string quartet that practiced next door. He entered the Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg, later Leningrad) Conservatory in 1919, where he studied the piano with Leonid Nikolayev until 1923 and composition until 1925 with Aleksandr Glazunov and Maksimilian Steinberg.
He participated in the Chopin International Competition for Pianists in Warsaw in 1927 and received an honorable mention, after which he decided to limit his public performances to his own works to separate himself from the virtuoso pianists. Prior to the competition, he had had a far greater success as a composer with the First Symphony (1924-25), which quickly achieved worldwide recognition. The symphony was influenced by composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky, Paul Hindemith, and Sergey Prokofiev. The cultural climate in the Soviet Union was, compared to the Soviet Union at its peak, free at the time.
Even the music of Igor Stravinsky and Alban Berg, then in the avant-garde, was played. Bela Bartok and Paul Hindemith visited Russia to perform their own works, and Shostakovich toyed openly with these novelties. His first opera, The Nose, based on the satiric Nikolay Gogol story, displayed a thorough understanding of what was popular in Western music combined with his “dry” humor. Not surprisingly, Shostakovich’s undoubtedly finer second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (later renamed Katerina Izmaylova), marked a stylistic retreat.
However, this new Shostakovich was too avant-garde for Stalin. In 1928, Joseph Stalin inaugurated his First Five-Year Plan, an “iron hand fastened on Soviet culture,” (Johnson) and in music a direct and popular style was demanded. Avant-garde music and jazz were banished, and for a while even Tchaikovsky was looked down upon. Shostakovich remained in good favor for a time, but it has been said that it was Stalin’s personal anger at what he heard when he attended a performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936 that sparked the official condemnation of the opera and of its creator.
The focus of the opera was based around murder, conspiracy, and trickery, all of which were the worst things that a Russian could speak of. Shostakovich was brutally attacked in the official press, and both the opera and the yet to be performed Fourth Symphony (1935-36) were banned. His next major work was his Fifth Symphony (1937), which he described as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism. Salisbury)
An insignificant, but dutifully “optimistic” work might have been appropriate; what emerged was “compounded largely of serious, even somber and elegiac music, presented with a compelling directness” (Kay) that won over the public and even the authorities with its stately rhythms and straightforward ideas. With the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich escaped from the stylistic ambiguity of his earlier works, laying a foundation for the personal style that he used in his fortress of compositions, which was so different from his Fourth. The Fifth represented a drastic shift in technique.
The Fourth Symphony had been a free propagation of melodic ideas, in contrast to the first movement of the Fifth, which was marked by melodic concentration: “Certain particles providing the main bases of music that grows organically to a relentless climax. ” (Blokker) This style of thematic composition is seen elsewhere in the work through his adaptation of the monolithic Baroque structures of the fugue and chaconne, each of which is based on the constant repetition of a single melodic idea. This style of composition continued to be an integral part of Shostakovich’s music.
In 1937 Shostakovich became a composition teacher in the Leningrad Conservatory, where he remained until the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. He composed his Seventh Symphony (1941) in that besieged city during the latter part of that year, and the work was quickly accepted, though more because of the “quasi-romantic circumstances of its composition than because of its musical quality, which is often banal. ” (Kay) This further shows that Shostakovich was always an experimenting composer, employing new techniques at every chance.
When some extramusical force conditioned the music, empty style and meager invention all too often had been the fruits of his labor. After the evacuation to Kuybyshev (now Samara) in 1942, Shostakovich settled in Moscow in 1943 as a teacher of composition at the conservatory. He later returned to the Leningrad Conservatory in 1945. Shostakovich’s works written during the mid-1940s contain some of his best music, especially the Eighth Symphony (1943), the Piano Trio (1944), and the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1947-48).
Their dominating seriousness contributed to Shostakovich’s second fall from official grace. When the Cold War began, the Soviet authorities sought to increase cultural control, demanding a “more accessible musical language” (Olkhovsky) than some composers were using. In Moscow in 1948, at what is a now notorious conference presided over by Andrey Zhdanov (a prominent Soviet theoretician), the leading figures of Soviet music, including Shostakovich, were verbally attacked and humiliated. As a result, the quality of all Soviet compositions slumped in the next few years.
His personal inspirations were reduced by the termination of his teaching responsibilities at both the Moscow and Leningrad conservatories. Yet he continued to fight. In his String Quartet No. 4 (1949), and especially in his Quartet No. 5 (1951), he offered an elaborate answer to those who would have had him renounce completely his “style and musical integrity. ” (Volkov)
His 10th Symphony, composed in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, flew in the face of Zhdanovism, yet, like his Fifth Symphony of 16 years earlier, compelled acceptance by “sheer quality and directness. Fanning) From that time on, Shostakovich’s biography is essentially a catalog of his works. He was left to pursue his creative career largely uninhibited by official intrusion. He did, however, experience some difficulty over the work “Baby Yar” by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, on which he based his 13th Symphony (1962), including rights and royalties. The work was withdrawn after its first performance. He tried again with his 14th Symphony (1969), presented as a cycle of 11 songs about death, which did not satisfy official circles.
The composer had visited the United States in 1949, and in 1958 he made an extended tour of Western Europe, including Italy (where he had already been elected an honorary member of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome) and Great Britain, where he received an honorary doctorate of music at the University of Oxford. In 1966 he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal. Despite relentless repetition in much of his music, which might suggest a reserved personality, Shostakovich was noted for his outgoing nature.
After Prokofiev’s death in 1953, he was the undisputed champion of Russian music. There was no reason to doubt that he was a sincere Communist, indicated by his participation in political conferences. Yet as a composer he always refused to be a “mere cipher of official politics. ” (MacDonald) Indeed, he appeared to flourish in tension, writing much of his best music when his “fiercely independent creative thought, under the abiding pressure from his masters for comprehensible expression, was channeled into a musical language of the utmost directness. Schwartz)
Testimony: the memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, exposed as a hoax in 1980 by Dr. Laurel E. Fay, is a fake “autobiography” (a la “Hitler’s Diaries”) created by defector Solomon Volkov. While it has been long discredited, it continues to poison the legitimacy of Shostakovich study. My first experience with Shostakovich was last summer at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. The World Youth Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Timothy Russell, was playing his 11th Symphony “The Year 1905.
As I sat and listened to the concert, I saw myself in Russia, with all the pain and agony of what was going on around me. I had to learn more about the genius who created this masterpiece. After inquiring with Mr. Russell, I learned of the struggle in Soviet culture, ultimately resulting in Shostakovich’s creations. Since then, I have listened to many of his symphonies and other works. Every time I hear the Fifth, I cannot help but be moved.